by James Kraus
The 1960s were a bifurcated decade that can be split into two quite distinct epochs. The first two-thirds of the decade was an optimistic forward-looking period of modernist international architecture, modal jazz, bossa nova and sharp Savile Row and Ivy League menswear. The era depicted in La Dolce Vita, Oceans Eleven, The 10th Victim, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, and That Touch of Mink. In contrast, the latter third of the decade was radically different; more of a prelude to the inward, casually attired, earth-toned 1970s.
This was a time when a large swath of consumers lost their unbridled enthusiasm for futuristic élan and began developing a taste of nostalgia for the golden days of yesteryear. At any point in time there is a tension between the embrace of the contemporary and desire for the traditional; even in the 1950s and early 1960s, many designers played it safe and many consumers elected to stay with period replicas when choosing homes, furnishings and other products. In the late sixties, the pendulum decidedly shifted to a desire for the traditional side of the spectrum.
In the automotive sphere the first stirrings of this change in attitude could be seen as early as autumn 1961 when Ford tested the market with a new version of their once sleek and modernist third-generation Thunderbird. The new Thunderbird “Landau” featured a dose of what Ford referred to as Traditional Elegance with a padded vinyl roof covering embellished with “glistening landau S bars” intended to recreate the look of the external folding top mechanism of a cabriolet from the heyday of Al Capone. The result was akin to erecting a cupola and weathervane atop Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center.
A limited-production model originally available only in Raven Black or Corinthian White, the Landau proved popular enough to become a full-fledged member of the Thunderbird range for 1963. In the spring of that same year Chrysler launched their New Yorker Salon featuring a padded vinyl Canopy Roof, walnut instrument panel trim and twin coach stripes.
Even more telling was the 1964 introduction of the world’s first retro-replicar; the Cord Sportsman 8/10, a Corvair-powered 8/10 scale reproduction of a 1937 Cord 810. Never before in the history of the motorcar did anyone ever think to build a new car that deliberately looked like an old car. The idea would have been anathema.
In the fall of 1964 General Motors introduced the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and Pontiac Bonneville Brougham. Both models featured vinyl roof coverings, interior wood trim, and embroidered seat inserts evoking the reign of the Sun King.
Simultaneously the ultimate automotive manifestation of this emerging groundswell debuted in the form of the new Ford Galaxie 500 LTD. Here was a car for the masses that was marketed purely on the basis of retrograde styling cues harkening back to the pre-war era: “inserts of simulated wood-grained paneling,” a stand-up hood ornament, and a “levant grain vinyl-covered roof.” Big Ford sedans had not featured wood-look interior trim since the early 1940s.
These elements had not disappeared completely; Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Lincoln still retained classical hood ornaments, a handful of traditionalist high-end luxury models never completely abandoned wood-trimmed interiors and a few American cars offered vinyl roof coverings; but the LTD was the first car to put all the pieces together into a unified concept for the mass market.
The Ford product planners had the fingers on the pulse of the market in the 1960s with the successful introductions of the intermediate-size Fairlane and the Mustang; both of which established significant new market segments in the U.S. and inspired immediate responses by competitors.
The LTD was no different. After the success of the Thunderbird Landau, Ford gambled that the public at large was ready to back-pedal from the nascent space age and retreat to the aesthetic past, and they proved to be correct. The LTD was an immediate hit and General Motors wasted no time hurrying a competitive product to market just months later; the Chevrolet Caprice Custom Sedan.
The new Chevrolet featured “triple fleur-de-lis” badges harkening back to the French monarchy and “the appearance of hand-rubbed walnut” as well as coach stripes and the requisite vinyl roof option. Plymouth followed with the Fury VIP, offering the “look of walnut,” “brass-look” interior trim and gold-flecked upholstery fabric. Like the LTD and Caprice, the VIP was assigned flagship duty for the brand’s full-size fleet.
Americans were not the only ones retreating to the past. In 1964 the 275 GTB became the first Ferrari to be offered with an available veneer-covered instrument panel. The following year the Fiat 850 Coupé debuted with a wood-trimmed facia; and faux walnut replaced the original grey crackle finish on the instrument panel of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint.
Over the course of the same year, Triumph replaced the modernist, Dieter Rams-like white instrument panel of the TR4 with an overlay of Olde English walnut veneer; the first-ever appearance of wood trim in a TR-Series sports car. By 1966, even formerly no-nonsense Volkswagen thought it a good idea to add “wood-look” appliqués to the instrument panel of Karmann Ghia models.
Note that it made no difference to the public whether the wood trim was real or not, nor that the vinyl up top was not actually the roof but just a superfluous covering over a steel roof; an illusion of Traditional Elegance was all that mattered.
The automotive arena was not the only place the retro trend was evident; it also manifested itself in architecture and interior design. A notable example was the significant shift in the standard building template for McDonald’s.
The fast food chain switched from a modernist sloped-roof design with large glass areas, to a more traditionalist design with brick and earth-tone elements, all capped by a brown shake-covered mansard roof recalling the halcyon days of nineteenth century Paris.
The desire for traditional stylistic elements also could be seen in residential design. The following illustrations of kitchens seen in consecutive catalogs from the Frigidaire division of General Motors clearly demonstrates the trend:
One American appliance manufacturer; Roper, went so far as to introduce an “Early American” stove design in 1965 featuring brass-look trim, a clock face with Roman numerals and a turned-wood oven-door handle. Kitchens were not the only aesthetic battleground on the home front; wood-grained vinyl began covering portable television sets, alarm clocks, desk lamps and other household accouterments.
In menswear, the clean and simple lines of the early sixties began giving way to the more lavish and baroque Edwardian-revival style. Even eyeglass frames retreated to “wire-frame” designs last seen before World War II.
By the end of 1960s, U.S. auto manufactures were rushing to capitalize on the burgeoning market for this LTD-like retro craze with new entries like the Buick Electra 225 Limited and the Mercury Marquis Brougham. Even the sporting Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray was offered in 1967 with a vinyl-covered removable hardtop while the “rich look of wood” was an available interior option beginning with the 1970 edition.
Meanwhile, retro fever escalated in Europe with the Siata 850 Spring and Vignale Gamine being unveiled in 1967. Some UK and Continental manufacturers embraced the vinyl roof covering; the British in particular. Rolls Royce affixed one to the long-wheelbase Silver Shadow in 1969 and British Leland soon offered them across nearly all their brands. Even some Germans manufacturers gave in to the trend with Audi and Opel happily serving up vinyl roofs to nouveau riche Burghers.
That is about as far as the Europeans would go, but the American manufacturers were far from finished with the theme of neo-classicism. They continued introducing models throughout the 1970s and even into the 80s and 90s that incorporated ever more design cues from the earliest days of motoring, and even a few gleaned from Victorian-era bordellos in pursuit of a level of decadence worthy of an emperor of Imperial Rome.
Thus the appearance of coffin-handle-like interior door pulls, loose-pillow seats, and finally the twin pinnacles of truly decadent automotive retro-luxury; Opera Windows and Opera Lamps.
Opera, the most dramatic of art forms, was an appropriate namesake for these twin symbols of automotive excess. The two operatic oddities also coincided with the swan song of the traditional elegance era.
There was however, another arrow in the 1970s automotive operatic quiver that was dramatic indeed, though it featured neither opera lamps nor windows, no vinyl roof, and nary a sliver of wood, the sublimely luxurious Citroën SM Opéra.
It is interesting to note that it was the 1970s, just as American manufacturers were racing to see who could most flamboyantly interpret Traditional Elegance that Mercedes-Benz and BMW first started gaining significant market share in the U.S. For a buyer in search of a tasteful, conservatively styled luxury car, there were no longer any domestically built examples.
Traditional Elegance died hard in the U.S.; twenty-eight years after the debut of the Ford LTD, one could still buy a brand new Cadillac Coupe de Ville with a stand-up hood ornament, opera windows, opera lamps and a vinyl-covered roof in a choice of “Cabriolet” or “Phaeton” styles. Although wood interior trim is still somewhat in vogue, other “traditional” embellishments reborn and popularized in the late-1960s have thankfully fallen by the wayside.